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From Solitary Reading to Collaborative Action: Improvisation for the Literature Classroom

Posted on: May 19, 2021

Can reading provide us with the survival skills to cope with a crisis? Sofia Ahlberg, author of Teaching Literature in Times of Crisis, examines how critical reading skills can be applied to real-world events.

Can literature save the world? I worked this question into a short survey when introducing teacher-training students to the English Education program at my university. My survey had a mixture of light-hearted and serious questions that elicited a range of responses. Surprisingly for me, when I put the question “Would you love to convince students that reading can save the planet?” to 40 teacher-trainees, 90% of them responded “Yes.”

The relevance of reading during crisis

At that time, Covid-19 was rapidly becoming an unavoidable presence in everyone’s lives as case levels began to peak globally. In the now mandatory online learning environment, the pandemic’s negative influence in the virtual literature classroom was complex. Students felt that reading novels was hard to justify against the background of a global emergency. As well, the worries associated with social distancing and online learning meant they struggled to complete tasks and hand in assignments on time. To help overcome this, I reminded them that critical reading skills could be applied to real-world events – not just novels. I also suggested that reading fiction would help them to imagine what their contribution to actual events could be. In the end, they were more inclined to read if they could see literature as providing them with survival skills for precisely these kinds of crises.

Dealing with fear – send in the clowns

It is doubtless an overly idealistic claim that literature can save us, and yet I can’t help but admire the student teachers who would affirm the possibility. In support of them, I believe that we can teach literature so as to foster in readers a readiness for active engagement with others. I appreciate my students’ willingness to believe that literary studies might help them to weather the current crisis though I add that this need not be a solitary activity. An enhanced ability to work with others is often the basis for enduring crisis. So what do we do in the literature classroom to bring about such collaborative reading practices? My strong hunch is that reading exercises that help overcome fear of others and of expressing oneself can go a long way.

This is the challenge facing student actors, as educator, playwright and theatre director Keith Johnstone notes. For this reason, I’m inspired by acting school, especially improvisation. For Johnstone, improvisation is often about overcoming the fear of looking stupid as well as generally being seen by others in any way that is revealing of one’s vulnerabilities. He especially refers to clown work as dealing with insecurities which he refers to in terms of an abyss that the performer must cross despite the fear of falling.

Improvisers act without a script and they are not overly stage-managed except perhaps for a minimal prompt. Most importantly, practising improvisation develops trust and the ability to respond to others that is integral to ensemble performance. Similarly, in the literature classroom, students can learn the skill of engaging with crisis by finding the courage and trust in their abilities to act in concert with others as readers and meaning-makers of text. The following exercises are inspired by improvisation techniques. Though they relate to a literary text they enlist the student’s energy, sometimes with others, in creating meaning quite independently of the original text. 

Improvisation reading exercises

  • Repurposing text: select a paragraph from a chapter that you are studying, then see how you could select words and phrases that can be arranged in any sequence to form a love letter or a breakup letter.
  • A Zoom variation on the Exquisite Corpse: begin with the final sentence from the novel you are teaching and send this as a private message to one of your students. They in turn must write a sentence beginning with the last four words of that sentence and message it back to you, the teacher. You then send the last four words of that sentence to someone else by private message, who will then write a sentence starting with those four words and send their sentence to you. Keep going until everyone has contributed to the collaborative writing. The result is often startling!

Improvisation exercises for the literature classroom help students overcome the fear of expressing themselves creatively since they are riffing on words and phrases that they didn’t come up with. The literature teacher is like a stage director who makes it safe for readers to play in this way with the text. An additional benefit of drawing action out of reading in this way is a more memorable learning experience since students tend to remember what they do more so than what they have heard.